Since Ancient Greece, People Have Fought for Genuine Freedom Against the Wealthy

Today, it is common for the libertarian and Christian right to claim they are fighting for freedom. But their notion of freedom has always stood at odds with the democratic cause of freedom to redistribute political power and wealth.

Freedom is life,” declared a banner at a recent rally against public health measures taken to reduce the effect of the pandemic. Indeed, this has become a consistent theme during the pandemic, as the movement against vaccines and public health measures has claimed the mantle of “freedom.” In response, the Left has pointed out that our individual freedom relies on social solidarity, arguing that the public measures are needed to preserve our right to health.

At stake are two opposed definitions of freedom — and this conflict is not new. In her recent book, Freedom: An Unruly History, Annelien de Dijn helps to shed light on these often contradictory meanings of the term. It is a sweeping history of the idea of freedom in the West, from Ancient Greece, to our time.

For centuries,” writes de Dijn, “western thinkers and political actors identified freedom not with being left alone by the state, but with exercising control over the way one is governed.” As this suggests, de Dijn distinguishes between two types of freedom: “freedom from” versus “freedom to,” or, as they are sometimes styled, negative freedom versus positive freedom.

“Freedom from” is the kind of freedom most often deployed by the small-government, reactionary right. Supporters of capitalism regularly invoke this kind of negative freedom when justifying the deregulation of employment, rolling back health and safety laws or lowering minimum wages. Free market fundamentalists cite it to justify deregulating financial markets. And Christian conservatives claim negative freedom when arguing that religiously inspired bigotry should be exempt from antidiscrimination laws.

De Dijn’s thought-provoking book cuts through this rhetoric by explaining how this negative conception of freedom arose relatively recently, as a way to fight back against popular struggles for the freedom to participate democratically and actively in politics.

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